Wednesday, June 27, 2012

When "He's Just Not That Into You" Backfires

The popular self-help book He's Just Not That Into You: The No Excuses Truth To Understanding Guys is intended to empower women to stop waiting around for disinterested guys. The basic premise is that if a guy is interested, he will make it clear (e.g., ask you out, call you, propose to you, etc), and if he doesn't make it clear, then he's just not interested. There are certainly times when women and men alike need to be snapped out of wishful thinking and move on, but for some people and in some situations, this tough love approach may backfire. Here’s why.

1. He might be into you but afraid to show it. As illustrated by this clip from the film version of the book, the bottom line of HJNTIY is the following: "If a guy doesn't call you, he doesn't want to call you." While this may be true much of the time, there may also be plenty of times when a guy wants to call but doesn't, for any number of reasons. Asking someone out for the first time can be scary, especially for people who have been hurt in the past, or who are nervous about being rejected. Such cases are not uncommon: research suggests that up to 25% of Americans have an avoidant attachment style, meaning they have difficulty trusting others and being emotionally vulnerable, and this rate is even higher among men. It's also possible that a guy won't want to come on too strong because he likes you and doesn't want to seem too desperate.  Of course, you may not want to be with someone who has trouble communicating their feelings, but if you like him, it might worth giving a shy guy the benefit of the doubt, at least in the early stages.

2. Your beliefs might become reality. You might make him disinterested just by believing it. The self-fulfilling prophecy is one of the most well-established findings in the field of psychology. It refers to the process by which our expectations influence the way we behave and interpret others' behavior, which in turn can elicit the very behavior in others that confirms our expectations. In a classic study, for example, teachers were told that certain randomly-selected students were about to blossom intellectually, and others were not. This expectation, though based on false information, led the teachers to behave differently towards the two groups of students (e.g., asking the blossomers more questions than the non-blossomers), which in turn led to the expected performance differences between the two groups. Likewise, if you believe that someone isn't into you, your behavior towards them might reflect this belief (e.g., you might be unfriendly and even hostile) which could lead them to truly not be into you, even if they were initially interested. This may be a problem particularly for people who are higher in rejection sensitivity, as these individuals are especially likely to over-perceive rejection in others' ambiguous behavior (i.e., lots of false "he's just not that into me" alarms).  

3. HJNTIY undermines confidence. Yes, recognizing the cold hard truth might be liberating, but does it have to be so cold and hard? Assuming that you've done your part but the other person is definitively disinterested, couldn't you frame the "He's just not that into me" message in gentler terms, like, "Maybe he's not the guy for me" or "I deserve someone who treats me well," or even "Oh well, I guess he just doesn't realize how awesome I am"? We may complain about break-up euphemisms, like the dreaded "It's not you, it's me," but would you really rather be told, "Actually it is you - I just don't find you that attractive or interesting." If not, why say that to yourself? Although it's important to have enough self-awareness to learn from past mistakes and recognize dysfunctional patterns of behavior, a little self-deception can't hurt, especially when cushioning the blow of rejection, a blow that signals "low relational value" and undermines confidence. Research suggests that people who hold positive illusions about themselves, rather than being hyper-aware of their shortcomings, tend to be happier and healthier. Sometimes it's better to believe that it's not about you, even if it is. 

4. The power problem. Perhaps most importantly, the phrase "He's just not that into you" has a fatal flaw: "He" is the subject and "you" are the object, a grammatical structure that reflects an outdated power differential between the sexes. What about what you want and who you're into? And why isn't there an equally popular book called "She's just not that into you" given that it's men who tend to overestimate women's attraction to them? (See this post by Nate Kornell).

Here is an excerpt from the book to illustrate the power problem:

Dear Greg,
I met a really cute guy at a bar this week. He gave me his number and told me to give him a call sometime. I thought that was kind of cool, that he gave me control of the situation like that. I can call him, right?

Dear Control Freak,
Did he give you control, or did he just get you to do the heavy lifting? What he just did was a magic trick: It seems like he gave you control, but really he now gets to decide if he wants to go out with you — or even return your call. Why don't you take Copperfield's number, roll it in a newspaper, pour milk in it, and make it disappear... When men want you, they do the work. I know it sounds old school, but when men like women, they ask them out. Because if the men are asking you out, if the men have to get your attention, then you, in fact, are the one in control. There's no scheming and plotting...

Alternatively, Lauren could just call the guy and see what happens–no scheming and plotting necessary. While it might be true that we're still used to the old-fashioned guy-asks-out-girl method, this system may be just as limiting for guys as it is for girls, as some (if not most) guys may appreciate being pursued from time to time. It is comforting to believe that there is a simple formula for finding love, but the reality can be messy and complicated, and it often requires that we abandon our preconceived notions about gender roles and traditional courtship rituals and find the courage to go with our guts when something feels right, wherever that might take us. 

This post previously appeared on my Psychology Today blog


Leary, M. R. (2005). Sociometer theory and the pursuit of relational value: Getting to the root of self-esteem European Review of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1080/10463280540000007


  1. The basic premise is that if a guy is interested, he will make it clear (e.g., ask you out, call you, propose to you, etc), and if he doesn't make it clear, then he's just not interested.

    It's a good thing no-one told screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, or authors of self-help books for guys that, or they'd have to throw out half their material!

    Every TV drama series I can think of involves at least one storyline based on a guy being interested in a girl and not telling her. There are whole books that are just that storyline. There's literally an industry of self help aimed at guys devoted to helping them signal interest to women.

    1. Great point - a lot of guys have trouble even talking to girls they're attracted to, let alone asking them out or openly expressing their feelings. At an extreme, fear can be debilitating and prevent connections from ever being made, but I think there's a reason why the theme of thwarted/unexpressed love comes up again and again in books and movies - there's something romantic and exciting about finally breaking through those walls and discovering that your feelings are shared. Even the movie version of HJNTIY has a scene like that:

      Thanks for reading!


  2. Trust me, if he's really interested he'll find a way to let you know. Nice try with the feminist argument about men having the power: but it has nothing to do with that. It all comes down to who you really want to be with and it's not something a woman can force on a man (or a man on a woman). This idea that powerful assertive women can pressure/force men to like them is an amusing cultural quirk with these brash sexually conniving American women. They don't know the art of sexual subtlety and how to cultivate real attraction and compatibility. Maybe that's why the U.S. has such a high divorce rate. Sure, if you're all over a guy with your skirt hiked up to your crotch and wearing a bra for a shirt with your boobs in his face, any guy is eventually going to give in-- for about 15 minutes.

  3. Also, did you ever think that not everyone wants to be boxed into a relationship? Especially with a selfish possessive american who doesn't know how to share?

  4. Talk about a man with a huge chip on his shoulder! Don't worry, dude; we American women don't want to force you to do anything. We just aren't that into you.

    Seriously though, I'm glad I found this post on the book. I sometimes wonder if these self-help authors might actually be right, and it's good to have another perspective on the implication of and flaws in their philosophies.

  5. Using sincere statements that let her know that you enjoyed the conversation will leave her thinking "What a nice guy.

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  6. Look everyone! Greg commented on this article!!!

  7. Hi Greg! How are you these days?

  8. Seriously though, I'm grateful I discovered this publish on the guide. I sometimes wonder if these self-help writers might actually be right, and it's excellent to have another viewpoint on the connotation of and faults in their conceptscheap rs gold